Census Bureau workers prepare to knock on doors

35% of U.S. homes have not mailed in forms

April 26, 2000|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- As the Census Bureau geared up to visit the 35 percent or so of U.S. households that did not mail back their forms, as many as 500,000 census workers are training this week. They will begin knocking on doors tomorrow, part of an effort that Clinton administration officials have frequently called the largest peacetime mobilization in U.S. history.

Census takers will visit homes through July as they attempt to locate the millions of individuals still unaccounted for in what the Census Bureau calls its nonresponse follow-up.

The bureau has said about 65 percent of households returned their forms by last week, matching 1990's rate and ending a decades-long decline in responses.

At a church in a Washington suburb, Kenneth Prewitt, director of the Census Bureau, fielded questions from a diverse group of new hires and attempted to inspire them for the job ahead. Many of the questions struck at the core of a problem the bureau hopes it can address more successfully during this census than the previous one in 1990.

The Census Bureau significantly undercounted the population in 1990, largely because of a lack of public cooperation. Census officials have said the 1990 census was hurt by some immigrants' erroneous suspicion that census takers might share information with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"You're going to run into some of that, certainly," Prewitt said in response to a question from a census taker. "People without documentation, or, if even they do, they still will not want to cooperate with the census. They will find it hard to believe that as part of the government, the census doesn't cooperate with the INS."

Prewitt emphasized the confidentiality of the information, saying there have never been any news reports about leaks or misuse of personal census information because that has never happened. He also explained that the information is not shared with other government agencies.

One worker asked Prewitt how to deal with skeptical members of the public who might suspect the workers of being fraud artists posing as enumerators.

Besides having the official photo identification badge, bag and census book, Prewitt said, census takers will be trained never to ask to to come inside someone's house."

"That's critical. If someone asks, `May I come in?' that tells the resident this is not a census taker," he said.

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